Sunday 3 August 2008

The Reason for God

I wrote an earlier post on Tim Keller's book The Reason for God in January (here) just before its release in the USA. I've finally got around to reading it and offer a full review in this post.

Timothy Keller is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York; the city that many see as one of the world's most cosmopolitan, pluralistic and liberal societies. Keller has seen his church grow by God’s power and grace to 5,000+ members. The church has now planted over a dozen “daughter congregations”.

Why this book?

Keller has seen a need for a new book to aid him and his church in reaching New Yorkers. He acknowledges that C.S. Lewis has both influenced him and this book. In his own words he states “Lewis’s words appear in nearly every chapter”. In many ways this book is Keller’s attempt to present a new version of “Mere Christianity”. When talking about the book prior to publication he said:
“I think Lewis' book is peerless, and foolish would be the author who tried to replace him! However, the issues in the public discourse around Christianity have become much more complex than they were in the mid and late 20th century. The questions are now not just philosophical (e.g. Is there evidence for God's existence?). They are also now cultural (Doesn't strong faith make a multicultural society impossible?), political (Doesn't orthodox religion undermine freedom?) and personal……when C.S. Lewis was writing, there was general agreement that rational argument and empirical method were the best ways to discover truth. That consensus has vanished."
It’s clear for whom Keller has written the book:
  • People who have doubts about Christianity.
  • Christians who want to be better equipped to share their faith.
Keller is a pastor/teacher at heart. This shines through so clearly in this book. I suspect it has taken him almost 20 years to write the book that in his words he “always wanted for sceptical New Yorkers”, because he has been so busy engaging with the many people who pass through his church. He states in the introduction that “respectful dialogue” with secular liberal people is his aim. Some might hear alarm bells ringing with these words – is he presenting a cautious and polite gospel leaving out all the hard stuff? I don’t think so. I don’t see him doing anything more than Paul did in Athens on Mars Hill within a society just as pluralistic as New York. Like Paul (on this occasion), he seeks to evangelise the biblically illiterate with worldviews far removed from his own. Paul’s approach here was different to that which he used in other places (e.g. Pisidian Antioch) and was no doubt deliberate. He begins with respect and restraint (Acts 17:22) and seeks to identify what his hearers believe. He then presents or addresses key themes or beliefs that are essential to an understanding of the gospel. And when he has touched on the key elements of his worldview he turns to the resurrection of Jesus. (Acts 17:16-31). Keller uses a similar apologetic approach.

What does the book cover?

Part 1 of the book is sub-titled ‘The Leap of Doubt’. Keller answers the 7 most common moral and philosophical objections to Christianity. Keller’s material in this half of the book is shaped by the many conversations he has had with sceptical New Yorkers who he obviously enjoys asking, “What is your biggest problem with Christianity” (a nice apologetic starter). The seven chapters cover seven key problems or objections to Christianity:
  • There can’t be Just one religion
  • How could a good God allow suffering?
  • Christianity is a straightjacket
  • The church is responsible for so much injustice
  • How can a loving God send people to hell?
  • Science has disproved Christianity
  • You can’t take the Bible literally
This first half of the book attempts to tease out the underlying beliefs that lead to the key objections to the faith. Keller strives to find some common ground on which to outline his biblical reasons for the faith. But first, he seeks to shed light on the beliefs that are driving the sceptic’s views before attempting to critique and dismantle them. The chapters are all written in a disarming style that draw on conversations (which he quotes) with people he has met at Redeemer. In taking the reader through these conversations he draws on key writing and thinking from apologists (Lewis key among them), philosophers, theologians, sociologists, new atheists, sceptics and so on.

While the first part of the book is all about discovering why people don’t believe, the second half is all about providing biblical justifications FOR believing in Christianity - ‘The Reasons for Faith". The chapters are:
  • The clues to God
  • The knowledge of God
  • The problem of sin
  • Religion and the gospel
  • The (True) Story of the cross
  • The reality of the resurrection
  • The dance of God
So does the book succeed?

My short answer is yes, for both the intended audiences. Keller does succeed in providing a useful new resource for sharing with sceptical friends, colleagues, neighbours and family members. Mind you, they’d need to be middle-class educated sceptics if you wanted simply to give them a book. For others the book would be a good resource to read with and discuss one-to-one or in small groups. Keller also succeeds in writing a book that is a useful reference for any Christian who wants to present the gospel to non-Christians.

Are there any weaknesses? Not many in my view, but some will take issue with some things. For example, some won’t like the apologetic tone (pun intended) when discussing sin and its consequences. While Keller talks of the consequences of sin “personally”, “socially” and “cosmically” he stops short of speaking of God’s wrath and impending judgement. Gordon Cheng has quite rightly (and politely – well done Gordon!) pointed this out both on Tim Challies site and on his own blog where Tim Keller responds to the criticism

Tim Challies when he reviewed the book also pointed to a few areas that will concern some Christians. But in doing so, he also acknowledges how much there is to learn from this book.
“Nobody but Tim Keller could have written this book. It seems likely to me that nobody but Tim Keller will agree with everything he says. For example, many believers will be uncomfortable with his defence of evolution - not the naturalistic evolution of so many sceptics, but a theistic evolution that attempts to reconcile rather than ignore the creation accounts of the Bible. Others will take issue with his description of hell and the thread of ecumenism that runs throughout the volume. But if we heed his exhortation to major on the majors, to look to what’s most foundational to the faith before focusing on matters of secondary importance, both believers and sceptics have a great deal to learn from this book.”

What do I think of the book and should you buy it?

I like it a lot and yes, it's worth buying. Of course, if you don’t like apologetic approaches then you might not like this book. If you believe that the gospel can only be presented in pure form with every element writ clear, and if you’re they type who - lacking trust in God’s sovereignty in using our inadequate words and explanations - is racked with pangs of pain and frustration when you don’t manage to get each bit of the gospel explained, done and dusted; then you might find this book too messy around the edges. But if you’re the type of person who gets up every morning well prepared and desperate to be given conversations with friends, colleagues and family members that you can turn to the gospel, then this is your book. For the Christian there are three key things to learn from Keller if you read this book:
  • that gospel conversations are often messy (I don’t think he says that, but he demonstrates it);
  • that we need to take the time to listen to the voices of non-Christians, to unpack their beliefs and to present the truth of the gospel simply and honestly;
  • that we all need to be ready and equipped to give a reason for our faith.
But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. (1 Peter 3:15, 16)

Other resources to support the book

You can download a video in which Tim Keller talks about his reasons for writing the book.

Redeemer Church also has a website dedicated to the promotion of the book and to other useful resources. It offers three sermons that relate to key topics:

* How can there be just one true religion?
* What should I do with doubts?
* Why the gospel is not religion or irreligion, but something else (The Prodigal Son)

The site also has a free readers guide for individual or group use.

The book isn't on sale in Australia as yet but you can buy it online as I did and get it quickly. Amazon has it for $US16.47 plus postage.


Anonymous said...


This looks outstanding. As soon as I can find out where I can get hold of a copy, I will order one!

Greg T

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Greg, thanks for your comment. It isn't on sale in Australia yet but it's easy to get from online book stores like Amazon. I've edited the post to add a link.

Hinch said...

I read this book a couple of months ago. It was an enjoyable read; however, i do have some objections.

In the first half of the book, Keller typically dismisses common objections to christianity by forcing the dialog along one of two paths: 1. the antagonist is either charged with submitting a relativistic claim, or 2. they are obligated to admit special access to universal truth. In the event they admit relativism, any argument against christianity can be dismissed, for it is rendered as nothing more than an alternate personal perspective. In the event they admit an appeal to universal truth, the argument is deemed to be nothing more than an alternate and indefensible faith claim.

However, not surprisingly, the positive arguments for christianity presented in the book are not subjected to the same criticisms of relativism and arrogance. Keller allows himself this convenience by suggesting that in a sense, christianity is a universal truth that doesn’t really need to be justified, for everybody already knows it to be true; his job is simply to reorient the attention of non-believers to this rather obvious fact.

In regard to other matters, i was unimpressed by Keller's discussion of morality. I consider it a significant error to suggest that morality only makes sense when humanity has an external reference point against which to judge right and wrong. Two other criteria suffice: an agreed social framework, and a biological aversion to pain and suffering (physical and emotional). There is no need to argue for a position of universal morality; all that is required is a sensitivity to the discomfort of others (a sensitivity which itself can be explained through evolutionary theory).

Keller's explanation of suffering in the chapter “How could a good God allow suffering in the world?" is perhaps the most unconvincing i've read in any apologetic work. His suggestion that all non-christians are effectively on a downward spiral of addiction and self-loathing is patently unjustified. And finally, i consider his description of hell to be completely non-biblical.

An interesting read if for no other reason than it raises more questions than it resolves.

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Hinch, Glad to hear your views on this. I discovered your review just after I’d posted my own review - enjoyed reading it (even though there was much with which I disagreed). I can see the threads of your argument again in your response to my post. There is only time and space to comment on a couple of things here (might come back to this later). First, while your comments (and your own review) are interesting, I think (with all due respect) that you miss Keller’s point about truth. Since he’s arguing the Christian position in light of the attacks by sceptics and atheists, it isn’t surprising that he’d discuss relativism. But the context of his argument is that the Christian truth claim is dismissed as simply another view of the world. To quote him: “Skeptics believe that any exclusive claims to a superior knowledge of spiritual reality cannot be true. But this objection is itself a religious belief. It assumes God is unknowable, or that God is loving but not wrathful, or that God is an impersonal force rather than a person who speaks in Scripture. All these are unprovable faith assumptions. In addition, their proponents believe they have a superior way to view things. They believe that the world would be a better place if everyone dropped the traditional religions’ views of God and truth and adopted theirs. Therefore, their view is also an ‘exclusive’ claim about the nature of spiritual reality..” Keller simply throws the argument back at those who use it against Christianity. I suspect that you too hold to at least one truth claim – Christianity is wrong.

I also disagree with your view that his position is arrogant. Re-read his introduction where he argues for “respectful dialogue”. To take an alternative view is not arrogance. I don’t see your dismissal of basic Christian truths as arrogant; neither should you see his as arrogant.

Second, your response to his views on morality are interesting, but I suggest that your alternatives to the notion of an external reference point have significant flaws that many philosophers of all faiths and none have already critiqued. You suggest that an agreed social framework, and a biological aversion to pain and suffering (physical and emotional) is all that we need, not a universal moral framework. This sounds like (among other things) classic Libertarianism to me – we need as much freedom as possible to determine our own goals. You suggest that somehow, if left alone, humanity will work out what is good and right by social consensus and due to an evolved avoidance of pain and suffering. That in effect, is what the Bible teaches, mankind chooses to rule the world its own way with no regard for him – hence his judgement. Keller is not the only person to critique the Kantian notion that an enlightened person is one who trusts his or her thinking, rather than authority or tradition.

Finally, Keller does not suggest that Christians are better people than non-Christians, in fact he says quite plainly, that “….Christians should expect to find nonbelievers who are nicer, kinder, wiser, and better than they are. Why? Christian believers are not accepted by God because of their moral performance, wisdom, or virtue, but because of Christ’s work on their behalf…” (p.19).

Thanks for your comment. Trevor

Anonymous said...

Since reading the review of this book here last year, I have been keen to read it myself.

I should admit that it’s probably hard for me to be entirely objective about a lot of The Reason for God, because so much of Tim Keller’s thinking corresponds quite closely to my own. Be that as it may, I’ll offer a few suggestions.

It might not be fair or accurate to suggest that Keller is a C.S. Lewis for the early 21st century. Christian apologetics must, however, engage with their era, and if Lewis were alive today his writings would no doubt look quite different in certain respects. He was a man of his times, and his methodology was immensely successful in engaging with the concerns of those times. In this – engaging with contemporary thought – I believe Keller succeeds brilliantly. I agree substantially with his view that, while God has not given us means of conclusively proving his existence, he has provided us with many clues, or pointers. It is fascinating, for instance, to see the way in which discoveries in astrophysics in recent decades have made the idea of a creator God more likely than previously seemed possible in some circles (the “fine-tuning” argument). Keller uses reason to show that belief in God is at the very least a possibility, while demonstrating that the same exercise of reason is ultimately a cul-de-sac: an omnipotent God will only reveal himself to a degree and in a manner that suits his purposes.

One of Keller’s aims seems to have been to demonstrate that the Christian religion provides the best key to unlocking the perennial questions of existence – what King Lear calls “the mystery of things”. In this I believe he has made an important contribution to our understanding of what it means to be truly human.

In a way, the facts of Keller’s ministry speak for themselves: in an age when it appears that for many the message of the gospel has lost most or all of the relevance it was once perceived to enjoy, Keller, relying on God’s grace and strength, has built a thriving, growing church in a place where many would have expected nothing but stony ground. This probably illustrates nothing so much as that the success of our endeavours to spread the good news of Jesus will depend, humanly speaking, on our determination to preach the gospel undiluted, with a deep belief in the infallibility of God’s word – albeit that the way in which that word can be read, or understood (as Keller I think demonstrates at points in his book) can vary among believers without necessarily undermining its truth or power.

The Reason for God is not without its faults. Personally I found some of the treatment of major objections to Christian belief in the earlier chapters quite facile. Such judgements are of course highly subjective. Possible negatives aside, there is much in The Reason for God that will provide encouragement for Christians of all persuasions – as well as being a useful tool in engaging effectively, yet respectfully, with the relativism so rife in our times.

Greg T